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Washington Nationals: Closer Battle - Drew Storen vs The World.

Drafted with the 10th pick of the 1st Round of the 2009 Draft, nine picks after the Washington Nationals selected Stephen Strasburg out of San Diego State University, Drew Storen, who'd just completed his sophomore year at Stanford where he'd collected 116 K's (10.5 K/9) and 15 saves in 59 games and 99.0 IP over two seasons, was kept in a relief role, as D.C. GM Mike Rizzo explained to Washington Post writer Dave Sheinin in a June 9, 2009 Nationals Journal post entitled, "Rizzo On Strasburg, Storen... and Crow", because, "That's where he's most comfortable,":

"...and his makeup and character led us to that decision. He wants the challenge of having the ball in the ninth inning. He's a much quicker prospect to the majors as a closer prospect."

Storen pitched just 53.2 innings in the Nationals' system over two seasons, striking out 64 (10.7 K/9) and walking just 11 (1.8 BB/9) before he made his MLB debut against the Cardinals in Busch Stadium (II) in St. Louis on May 17th, 2010. The right-handed former [Stanford] Cardinal closer replaced Doug Slaten with one on and one out in the seventh inning of a game the Nationals trailed 4-2. The then-22-year-old right-hander retired Felipe Lopez on a fly ball to left, then hit Skip Schumaker to put to two on with two outs before he struck Matt Holliday out with 94 mph full-count-fastball inside that got the veteran outfielder swinging. Storen, who was being groomed as the future Nats' closer didn't get his first opportunity to record a save until August 6th, after the Nats dealt Matt Capps to Minnesota for catching prospect Wilson Ramos, but converted the opportunity when he did finally get it... 

The first blown save of the reliever's career came on August 26th, again against St. Louis, when Storen gave up back-to-back singles to start the top of the ninth inning of a game the Nationals led 8-6. Storen surrendered an RBI double, base-loading intentional walk and a HBP (on Matt Holliday) that forced in a run before he was lifted with the score tied at 8-8, having given up two of the four runs he'd be responsible for in a game the Nats would eventually win 11-10 in 13 innings. The Nats trailed the next night 4-1 to the Cardinals, and blew game three of four in St. Louis open in the bottom of the eight, so Nats' Skipper Jim Riggleman didn't have to use his closer, but he gave Storen the ball and actually brought him in for a 4-out save the next time a save situation arose, with the Nationals up 4-1 in the eighth on the strength of John Lannan's 7.2 inning outing in the final game of the four-game series in St. Louis.  

Storen got a grounder to the mound from Matt Holliday for the first out, then surrendered a one-out solo HR by Pedro Feliz that made it 4-2, before he struck out Jon Jay and recovered from an error on what should have been an inning-and-game-ending grounder by Yadier Molina that Ian Desmond booted to strike out Colby Rasmus for his third save and the Nationals' first series win against St. Louis since August of 2007. 

The first bit of controversy in Storen's career came a few weeks later. In a September 19th save situation in Philadelphia, the right-hander entered the game in the bottom of the ninth in Citizens Bank Park with Washington up 6-3 and gave up a single to Placido Polanco, a double to Chase Utley, two-run single by Ryan Howard and a walk-off HR by Jayson Werth, who destroyed a full-count fastball. "Storen said he doesn't have any regrets,"'s Bill Ladson wrote in an article on the rough outing entitled, "Storen comes up short as Nats fall to Phils", in which he quoted Storen saying he'd challenged the slugger with a fastball and simply missed his spot. 

"'I don't think we have anointed anyone as the closer'",'s Mr. Ladson quoted Jim Riggleman responding after the game when asked if the new closer needed a veteran mentor. Though the team was, "'...hoping someday Drew is that guy to pitch in the ninth inning,'" Mr. Riggleman said, "'...we are not saying that it's now or next year,'" and at that point, none of the Nats' relievers roles weren't set in stone according to the Skipper. Two nights later, at home against Houston, Storen struggled again. Brought on in the top of the ninth with the Nats up 8-3, Storen struck out Jason Michaels, but surrendered another solo HR to Chris Johnson and issued a one-out walk to his former Stanford catcher Jason Castro prompting Riggleman to lift him with Washington up 8-4 so Sean Burnett could record the final out of the game. 

When asked why he pulled the rookie reliever with two down and the Nationals up by four, Riggleman said he was worried about Storen's pitch count getting up and thought Burnett would turn the Astros' Geoff Blum around to the right side and get the out, which he did. Asked if he worried about the young right-hander's confidence, Riggleman told reporters as recorded by Washington Post writer Adam Kilgore in a Nationals Journal article entitled, "Drew Storen, Jim Riggleman and confidence", that, "If a guy's confidence gets shaken that easy, then he might not be the right guy." While that may have sounded harsh, Riggleman reiterated that Storen hadn't been anointed the team's closer yet, and said that he had, "' doubt that Drew is going to look at that as a situation where, 'I'm not the closer here yet. I aspire to be that. But it's results orientated, and I'm going through the process of becoming a closer here someday,'" which is essentially what Storen did when asked about the outing, saying he wasn't happy about his own effort but was happy with the Nats' win. 

Storen recorded 5 saves and 52 K's (8.5 K/9) while walking 22 (3.6 BB/9) in 55.1 IP with Washington in 2010. When he appeared on the Sirius/XM MLB Network Radio show "Power Alley" with Kevin Kennedy and Jim Duquette in late November, Storen told the hosts he intended on landing the closer's role in 2011:

"That's obviously my goal. I had an up and down year I feel like, and that's one thing about me, I'm never satisfied and I feel like I made a step in the right direction and made a good adjustment to a new level of competition, but I know there's a lot of work still to be done, and I've got the right support staff of veteran guys and good coaches, that hopefully I can be that guy for us this year and that's my goal and that's what I'm working every day right now to work towards."

Several weeks after that interview the Washington Nationals selected erratic 23-year-old New York Mets' prospect Elvin Ramirez and his triple-digit fastball in the Rule 5 Draft, the rules of which require that the right-hander remain on the Nats' roster throughout the season or be returned to NY. When Washington dealt Josh Willingham to Oakland, one of the two prospects they received in return was another 23-year-old right-hander, Henry Rodriguez, who has no options left and would need to clear waivers to be sent into the Nationals' system. D.C. GM Mike Rizzo told Washington Post writer Adam Kilgore, as quoted in an article entitled, "Josh Willingham traded by Washington Nationals to Oakland Athletics for Henry Rodriguez and Corey Brown", that, "'From everything we've seen, we believe that Rodriguez is going to make our big league club in our bullpen,'":

"'We foresee him down the road as a guy who has the possibility to pitch in the back end of a game, either set up [Drew] Storen in the eighth inning or pitch in the ninth inning."

Ramirez struck out 8.1 K/9 in 80.0 innings pitched combined for the Mets' Class-A and Double-AA affiliates in 2010, but walked 5.5 BB/9 though the Nationals scouted the right-hander and believed he was improving his control. Rodriguez K'd 31 (13.1 K/9) in 21.0 innings with the A's Triple-A affiliate in 2010, and K'd 33 (10.7 K/9) in 27.2 IP for the A's, though he walked 4.2 BB/9 in the Majors and 6.6 BB/9 over the course of his five seasons and 329.1 IP in Oakland's system. Storen, Tyler Clippard, Sean Burnett, Collin Balester, Craig Stammen and Doug Slaten are expected to be part of the bullpen. Ramirez, Rodriguez, Adam Carr and Cole Kimball are all expected to compete for roles, and the Nationals are still rumored to have interest in acquiring another power arm of the pen...

Will Storen emerge to claim the closer's role? Will the additional arms challenge the right-hander or others in the pen for their jobs? With all the arms they have, there's still no proven closer, will the Nats take the chance that one of the above can do the job, or bring someone in to battle for the ninth inning and push those already on the roster?